In conversation with Stuart Higgs

During the down time, Motorsport Broadcasting is taking the opportunity to review content that never made it past the drawing board due to time constraints.

Back in 2017, this writer went behind the scenes at a British Superbikes event at Silverstone. As well as looking around the outside broadcast (OB) truck, I spoke to the brains behind British Superbikes, Series and Race Director Stuart Higgs (@StuartHiggs).

Although I published snippets at the time, I never published the full 40-minute extract. Some snippets are no longer relevant, but many of the topics discussed at length are still applicable to the present day, discussing broadcasting and beyond.

To begin with, me and Stuart chat about the hurdles British Superbikes has faced over the past 25 years…

We relaunched British Superbikes in 1996, and it’s gone through several evolutions of promoter and organiser since, most recently 2008, when MSV acquired the commercial rights. I’ve been involved in the championship for most of the twenty-year period beforehand.

2008 saw a convergence of promoter, circuit, and organisational entities all into one group, which really changed the commercial and media landscape because it allowed us to be unfettered in terms of our deal making capability and the ability to promote the championship.

Back in 1996, the circuits all got together to form an organisation called the Motorcycle Circuit Racing Control Board (MCRCB), and that gifted itself by negotiation, the promotional and organisational rights for British championship level motorbike racing in the UK on permanent circuits.

Previously it was left to individual promoters, all run under the regulation body the ACU, but 1996 was the moment when it all changed. We had a single promoter and organiser, led by Robert Fearnall at Two Four Sports, who operated Donington.

This was around the same time I think that Superbikes was making a splash on free-to-air television, which must have helped the championship.

BBC Grandstand really propelled two wheels back into the living rooms, and it followed what happened a couple of years previously with British Touring Cars. It was a nice, snappy 30-minute programmes, with three or four million people watching on a Saturday afternoon. It was the rebirth, and as everyone saw, attendances went up, sponsors like Cadbury, Old Spice and Red Bull came in for the first time, it was the sea change moment.

That brings us up to 1999, when the group of circuits all thought that, given the success so far, they would take touring car and superbike and become this huge motor sport promoting entity.

That all dovetailed at the same time with a company called Octagon, who were owners of the circuits that are now MSV. Octagon acquired the Formula 1 British Grand Prix rights that were going to Brands Hatch, which never happened, and it was a bit of a mess.

Octagon eventually flogged all the circuits to Jonathan Palmer (MSV) in early 2004, and we as a championship were looking for a home. Robert Fearnall negotiated with Dorna, agreeing that they would handle BSB’s commercial rights. And then we created an organising body which would run the sporting side of the championship, led by myself.

Was the partnership successful between yourselves and Dorna?

It was, but the next challenge was a battle between Dorna and ourselves, as the sporting and promoter of the championship, and some of the circuits, now with Jonathan Palmer at the helm, where we’d do a deal with a sponsor, for example Monster, but a track may have a deal with Red Bull for example.

As a championship, we would say “we must have a clean circuit, no billboards,” and they’d say “well we’ve sold this bridge to Vauxhall,” it was constant loggerheads.

It became clear that Dorna was not in it for the long-term, for them it was a good way to get into superbikes, by pumping some investment into a superbike product that was not World Superbikes at the time.

Domestically in the end, I was working on one side and Palmer was very interested in BSB, so we got together, and everything went across to MSV. Suddenly, the handcuffs were off, which leads us to where we are today.

Jonathan [Palmer] as the promoter realised, what I always believed, that you needed the championship rights to prevail, which made the venues wake up and blossom as well.

It allowed us to make long-term deals commercially, long-term television deals, and if you have long-term television deals then you can go to sponsors with confidence. If you can say to a sponsor “this is our current broadcast footprint and circuit attendance,” you can say to a potential partner this is what it is going to in the next five years and immediately people start to think.

That’s where the stability has come from, and obviously we will work on behalf of the teams to help procure their commercial partners and just to support them where we can. It’s a nice position to be in.

Dorna are now starting to invest in support series around the world, the British Talent Cup [started in 2018] which is only a good thing for motorcycle racing in this country.

They acknowledge the UK has been a critical market, one of the most knowledgeable fan bases in the world, and they want to develop further opportunities for the young riders. The series will ride across Dorna’s championship events in the UK, which is World Superbikes and MotoGP, and some races with us, we’re happy with that.

Having the world’s foremost two-wheel motor sport promoter, and having the UK’s biggest venue operator and again promoter all working on the same page is a very interesting development.

Let us move on to a hypothetical scenario for a moment. I am a motor sport fan, who lives in the UK, but never been to a British Superbikes event. What is the draw?

You’re spoilt for choice for what you spend your money on, so value for money is the key here. There’s no other comparable premier sport in the UK that has the value for money for what you see on a day, the access you have to it and the people. We are a national or international level event, priced at a national or even regional sport level.

It’s a spectacle, it’s escapism from the regulated world. I think people appreciate motorcycle racing more when you understand the human side of it as well. The most important thing is the access between the spectator and the rider, and vice versa, that’s one reason I got involved in racing, I idolised Barry Sheene.

I always want to present our championship in a way where, whether people come for the first time or repeated times, they still get that feeling of seeing their heroes. The show can attract you, but like any sport, you enjoy it more when your heart is racing and you have someone to support.

Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the monitor wall
Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the key roles and responsibilities

Looking at the schedule here at Silverstone, there’s loads of action on from early in the morning to late in the afternoon.

Track time is key.

I think the diversity of what is on show, from kids on Moto3 bikes through to one brand series we have like Ducati, many races we also have the sidecar series, which is one of the biggest in the world.

It’s keeping the racing industry going, it’s a churn of riders at all levels, teams of different standards. It’s very important to be able to showcase that to fans watching trackside.

Finances are always a concern irrespective of what level of motor sport you participate in. Are things more stable for British Superbikes under MSV?

Motor sport is still an expensive past time no matter how many cost controls you try and put in. There’s the crash damage cost, the human cost which can’t be reduced that much, and then you get external variables which affects people’s budgets.

Our aim has always been to have an international-level championship performing on a geographical base that’s national, with a bit overseas like Assen. We operate in a small geographical space, but our broadcast footprint is global which means we can offer a unique proposition for teams and investors.

Teams and investors in the championship can pay a fee equivalent to the level of operation but it gets this incredible visibility and reach. If it costs £500,000 to run a decent, mid-range superbike team and you can get the budget to cover that, the money you’re asking of people will still deliver a return that’s probably better than someone investing five times as much on the world stage.

For those who don’t know, British Superbikes has something called the ‘Showdown.’ Talk to us a little bit about the idea behind it.

All sports over the last 30 years have had slight format changes, even in football, you used to get two points for a win, now you get three points for a win. Cricket has gone from sort of test matches to one-day games over the years.

We took a hard look at the end of ’09, after Leon Camier dominated and wrapped the series up by the end of August at Cadwell, and the last three races were like non-events. He won the series on merit, but the reality is people don’t generally win sport on the first day.

There must be a way to make the championship decided on the final day of the competition. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if there is a bit of artificiality injected into it because ultimately it is about entertainment.

April to October is a very long time to maintain the story, particularly when you’re competing against loads of other sports. The Ryder Cup for example can capitulate an entire audience because, you’re not worried about what happened last week, you don’t care about next week, it is one weekend.

Motor sport has championships which go on for a very long time. 24 riders, 12 teams in a championship, you know in a traditional format who your top two or three are going to be before the season.

At the start of our season, 75% of the teams believe they can get to the top six at this stage of the season, which is the reason for doing it. It is not just about the guy at the top of the championship any more, there is all the subplots going into Showdown.

The more talking points you create, the more interest you get. The more interest you get, the more sponsors, awareness, controversy, and even for the people that hate it, I say “good! I’m glad you hate it, because you’re talking about it, and that’s great!”

This weekend [last weekend at Silverstone before Showdown in 2017], we’ve got nine people mathematically chasing six places, and that’s played out over three races, so yes, it elevates this round, then we reset ready for the Showdown.

Some people used to say “well rounds three and four, they don’t count,” well actually they do, because all those podiums are very meaningful to what the outcome will be.

It’s got an artificial element to it, but it makes us stand out from the crowd. WSB are tying themselves up in knots trying to wrestle with their current situation having two dominant teams, they have the reverse grid format, which is all right, it’s just not that radical, and yet they got the uproar for it anyway.

On the UK TV front, how are things looking? Currently you’re with Eurosport and ITV4 in a long-term deal [until the end of 2020].

The longer the television deal, the more stability you get, it works for all parties. Eurosport have been very good to us, we’ve been very good for them.

We joined Eurosport at a time when they were not taken very seriously, and then Discovery took them over. Their presentation standards have massively improved, they will acknowledge that at the start, the EPG and the pictures that you were watching would not always match up! Now, they have some serious rights, the US Open tennis, the Olympics, and we are a big part of their platform.

We took a load of crap at the end of 2007 when it was obvious that ITV didn’t want non-flagship sport on ITV1, they just really wanted football and the odd boxing match. After 2007, I thought Eurosport would do a better job than ITV4, and we’ll back it up with a free-to-air partner, which in the first year was Channel 4. By the end of that year, ITV realised that we were important and we formed part of their ITV4 portfolio, just at the digital cut-over time with Freeview.

Although we’re a long way away from 2020, are you already talking to Eurosport about what the future holds?

We’re talking now to our current partner, understanding what things are in the pipeline for them, and equally they will be asking questions of us in terms of the direction of the championship. It’s keeping it fresh, and bear in mind that people like Eurosport are not just broadcasters, but they have their own event rights as well.

At the same time, it’s trying to work out where the media landscape is going. The maturing sports fans of 2020/2021 are 14-15 years old now in terms of new audience. I’ve got a twelve-year-old daughter, and she doesn’t watch television, not interested. She’s busy watching things on YouTube or talking on social media. The critical thing for all sports is how to engage and make your product more engaging, more understanding.

Television is the most important visibility platform that we have and it will be for the foreseeable future. It’s building the content around that; it’s integrating between social media and other delivery platforms. Some sports are massively advanced in that, you’re seeing it appear in weird places like Twitter or Facebook.

It’s how everyone fits into that, there’s expectation now from people that you click on something and you see it, which conflicts with the pay-TV model where you pay to view it. The whole monetisation of sport, content, and broadcasting, I don’t believe anyone has the right answer. There’s a number of theories, you’ve just got to get through it and see what works for your audience.

My thanks go to Stuart Higgs for spending the time with me on the above piece. Interview was conducted in 2017 prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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